Venezuelan Oil Exports Hampered

Labor troubles at PDVSA and a bitter general strike has severely cut oil production and exports, shaken up the oil markets and aggravated political instability in Venzuela. A petroleum workers' slowdown all but shut down one of the world's biggest refineries Tuesday, closed another, and brought ship deliveries to a near-standstill. President Hugo Chavez defiantly insisted that production was normal.

Venezuela usually sends 400,000 barrels of refined products such as gasoline per day to the United States, as well as 1.3 million barrels of crude. Its troubles follow Iraq's suspension of exports to demand that Israel abandon Palestinian territories.

"I have a dozen vessels lined up, waiting for loading," said one shipping agent at the port of Puerto La Cruz. More than 20 tankers were waiting at the nation's main terminals, industry sources said. On Tuesday, Fedecamaras, Venezuela's biggest business group, and the 1 million-member Venezuelan Workers Confederation launched a 24-hour general strike and later extended it by another 24 hours, or until Thursday, to support dissident workers at PDVSA. They warned they may continue indefinitely to weaken Chavez's government. Confederation chief Carlos Ortega demanded that Chavez meet the demands of PDVSA strikers: Rescind his February 25th appointment of a company board PDVSA executives claim will work to assert Chavez's control over a traditionally independent corporation. Chavez insists the board is qualified and his appointments based on the law.

Fedecamaras president Pedro Carmona condemned the government's use of a law that forced all broadcast media to repeat government announcements that Tuesday's strike was a failure. Broadcasters were forced to transmit dozens of government transmissions, repeatedly interfering with reporting on the strike, until late Tuesday. Labor and business leaders declared the strike a success, though Fedecamaras director Gregorio Rojas acknowledged it wasn't as inclusive as a December 10th strike that virtually paralyzed the country. Tuesday's strike, he noted, was called only on Sunday. Bands of Chavez supporters known as "Bolivarian Circles" clashed with strikers outside PDVSA headquarters, and at least 18 people were injured, many of them Chavez supporters, police officers at the scene said. A Caracas city official, Nestor Henriquez, was dragged from a car by strikers and beaten before he fled under a hail of rocks. Richard Blanco, an official with the opposition Democratic Action party, accused Henriquez of belonging to "the armed gangs which (Chavez) incites with his aggressive rhetoric." At dusk, thousands of citizens waving red, yellow and blue Venezuelan flags converged on PDVSA headquarters to sing the national anthem and chant, "Chavez Out! Chavez Out!" Dozens of National Guard troops took up positions around the building.

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, urged U.S. citizens to be aware of "potentially violent confrontations" for "the next several weeks."

"What strike? There's no strike," Chavez told a reporter from a state-run TV channel. "I can tell the country, the world, that the country isn't paralyzed, the situation is absolutely normal.... Oil is being produced and being exported." But Jose Manuel Bacardo, manager at the 950,000-barrels-per-day Paraguana refinery, told Union Radio that the facility is "virtually shut, because with no products leaving, even by ship, you have effectively stopped the refinery." With neither side willing to budge, "This is a fight with only losers, and no winners," said Ali Rodriguez, secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and a former Venezuelan oil minister. "PDVSA is being destroyed at a time when Venezuela could play a vital role as a secure supplier of oil amid all the Mideast turmoil," said Jose Toro Hardy, a former PDVSA Director.